Saudi Arabia and our security

By Bernadette Meaden
June 6, 2017

After the London Bridge attack, Theresa May said, “there is to be frank, far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations.” Perhaps one of the most difficult and embarrassing conversations we need to have is with Saudi Arabia, and one can only hope that whoever forms the next government will have the courage to initiate it.

A tyrannical kingdom that routinely violates human rights, uses the death penalty to crush dissent, denies many rights to women, and is currently engaged in a bombing campaign in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest customer of the British arms trade.

Since the bombing of Yemen began, the British government has licensed £3.3 billion worth of arms to the Saudi regime, and has also provided military advisers. In the House of Commons last year, the SNP’s Angus Robertson challenged David Cameron on this, saying, “Thousands of civilians have been killed in Yemen, including a large number by the Saudi air force. They’ve done that using British-built planes, with pilots who are trained by British instructors, who are dropping British-made bombs and are coordinated by the Saudis in the presence of British military advisers. Isn’t it time for the Prime Minister to admit that Britain is effectively taking part in a war in Yemen that is costing thousands of civilian lives and he has not sought parliamentary approval to do this?”

Even when the USA stopped supplying arms to Saudi Arabia because of concern at the number of civilian deaths in Yemen, Theresa May, who was by then Prime Minister, refused to halt British exports.

Part of Mrs May’s argument for continuing to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia was that we value their co-operation on intelligence and security, and that this has saved thousands of lives. Of course, as with most statements about intelligence and security, it is very difficult to challenge or to verify this. But one extraordinary incident in 2006 puts this ‘co-operation’ in a rather curious light. 

It was reported that, "Saudi Arabia's rulers threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London unless corruption investigations into their arms deals were halted, according to court documents… investigators were told they faced 'another 7/7' and the loss of 'British lives on British streets' if they pressed on with their inquiries and the Saudis carried out their threat to cut off intelligence. Prince Bandar, the head of the Saudi national security council, and son of the crown prince, was alleged in court to be the man behind the threats to hold back information about suicide bombers and terrorists. He faces accusations that he himself took more than £1 billion in secret payments from the arms company BAE." The investigation was duly dropped following pressure from Tony Blair.

Eventually however, in 2010, BAE Systems pleaded guilty to criminal charges in both the USA and UK, and paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. The New York Times reported, “The Justice Department’s charge related to just a small part of the billions of dollars in payments that BAE is thought to have made to Saudi Arabian officials over a 20-year period.”

And now, we learn that an investigation into the funding of jihadi terror groups in the UK, which is thought to focus on Saudi promotion of Wahabbi fundamentalist Islam, may not be published because it is ‘very sensitive’.  How can we tackle extremism if we shy away from identifying the sources and promoters of extremism?

Viewed in the round, the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is extremely troubling. Why does our government defer so much to this brutal regime? Why does it arm it despite its appalling human rights record? Is it motivated by fear, or profit, or oil, or all three?  Whatever the answer, it seems clear that the relationship can undermine the ethics of business and the morals of government, rendering us seemingly incapable of challenging what needs to be challenged, and naming what needs to be named.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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